If Abraham Lincoln was polite in his letter of September 2, 1861, requesting that John C. Frémont rescind the part of his martial law proclamation freeing the slaves of disloyal Missouri slaveholders, Frémont in his reply dated September 8 was cagey. Nonetheless, the letter is revealing about Gen. Frémont and the circumstances of his bold decision.
Frémont first tried to justify his not consulting with the President before taking such a momentous step, citing the difficulty of communicating between St. Louis and Washington, D.C. He wrote:
Your letter of the 2d by special messenger I know to have been written before you had received my letter, and before my telegraphic dispatches and the rapid development of critical conditions here had informed you of affairs in this quarter. I had not written to you fully and frequently, first, because in the incessant change of affairs I would be exposed to give you contradictory accounts; and, secondly, because the amount of the subjects to be laid before you would demand too much of your time.
Trusting to have your confidence I have been leaving it to events themselves to show you whether or not I was shaping affairs here according to your ideas. The shortest communication between Washington and Saint Louis generally involves two days and the employment of two days in time of war goes largely toward success or disaster. I therefore went along according to my own judgment leaving the result of my movements to justify me with you.
In his next paragraph, John C. Frémont exhibited both his sizeable ego and impetuous nature. Frémont revealed that his martial law proclamation had been conceived and issued with great speed, and that he trusted his own judgment sufficiently to make such a momentous decision quickly and without consulting higher authority. He stated:
And so in regard to my proclamation of the 30th. Between the rebel armies, the Provisional Government and home traitors I felt the position bad and saw danger. In the night I decided upon the proclamation and the form of it. I wrote it the next morning and printed it the same day. I did it without consultation or advice with any one, acting solely with my best judgment to serve the country and yourself and perfectly willing to receive the amount of censure which should be thought due if I had made a false movement. This is as much a movement in the war as a battle, and in going into these I shall have to act according to my judgment of the ground before me as I did on this occasion. If upon reflection your better judgment still decides that I am wrong in the article respecting the liberation of slaves I have to ask that you will openly direct me to make the correction. The implied censure will be received as a soldier always should the reprimand of his chief. If I were to retract of my own accord it would imply that I myself thought it wrong and that I had acted without the reflection which the gravity of the point demanded. But I did not. I acted with full deliberation and upon the certain conviction that it was a measure right and necessary and I think so still.
In the last passage, Frémont politely invited Abraham Lincoln to overrule him. In Frémont’s mind no doubt, if the President publicly overruled him on emancipation in Missouri, at the very least it would help him save face with his abolitionist allies, and if the Lincoln dithered or refused to act, he would emerge an even greater hero with the radicals for having forced the administration to confront the full implications of August’s Confiscation Act.
For if the Lincoln administration in late Summer 1861 was avoiding where the Confiscation Act was taking the United States, other people were not. Most especially the British press, who while interested in America’s civil war were not so invested in its outcome as to blind themselves to the momentum flowing from political decisions being made in Washington and elsewhere. On September 4, 1861, the New York Times republished an undated article from the London Examiner written apparently after the passage of the Confiscation Act but before Gen. Frémont’s proclamation. This publication, a voice of Britain’s 19th-century radical left, stated plainly what many Americans were ignoring. That as a practical matter it would be difficult to confiscate slaves from their owners without also freeing them. The article stated in regard to the Confiscation Act:
Whenever the Federalists choose to apply this law it must, so far as the Federal power extends, work out the liberation of the blacks. The word slave is carefully avoided in the article, but the status of the slave is as carefully described, and the Confederates, seeing this, will not be a little scandalized and exasperated at finding their chattels called persons. We do not suppose that the Federal Government contemplates the immediate enforcement of this law, within the present small range of their power, but rather imagine that it proposes to keep it as a rod suspended over the South. Over and over it has been proclaimed that the North resorts to arms only to put down the revolt against the Union, and restore the status quo ante bellum, without any diminution of the authority of the States, or interference with their institutions. But here is a law which would overthrow the main institution of the South, strip it of its property, upset its whole social system, and in a word, utterly revolutionize the whole country. What would remain to be brought back to the Union if the four millions of slaves who raise the crops and do the labor of the South were set free? The consummation is to be desired, but not by such means, not by so abrupt a process, sure to involve horrors from the contemplation of which humanity recoils. The law of confiscation is at present inoperative, but it will come into activity in proportion to the ground the Federalists gain in the Slave States, if, indeed, they ever do gain ground; and whether they do or not, the slaves will fix their hopes in this law, and naturally desire the success of their masters’ enemies, in order that they may obtain the benefit of emancipation by forfeiture. We may imagine how ready the slaves will now be to render any service to their employers in the insurrection to make a case for their own liberty in the event of the triumph of the Federalists. They will be eager to serve to make the case for the forfeiture, and then to betray to bring it about. The Confederates will thus be more than ever distrustful of their slaves; they will look with suspicion even at their readiness to do their bidding, and a state of feeling is likely to be produced on both sides the most baneful. For a time the South, having the habit of domination, may fight the North with one hand while it holds down the slave with the other, but this is an attitude so strained as to be not long maintainable, and if the war be protracted, the horrors of a servile insurrection, such as the world has never yet seen, will too probably be added to it.
The London Examiner article is wonderful not only for its candor and insight, but also for the way it treats the American slaves as active participants in the emancipation process. In other words, while Lincoln administration might have wanted to use the Confiscation Act merely as a club to force slaveholders to its will, the slaves would not let it, because in their thinking being confiscated took them a lot closer to becoming free and consequently many would flee to Union forces when presented with the opportunity. So Abraham Lincoln’s initial use of the Confiscation Act was unintentionally or not premised on the slaves’ passivity–when they were not passive but willing to act daringly if necessary to be free.
It was also premised on Union commanders in the field doing as they were told in regard to the Confiscation Act and not, as John C. Frémont appeared trying to do in early September 1861, pushing its boundaries. Yet it must be admitted that as impetuous as were Frémont’s actions, he was trying to solve find a permanent solution to a dilemma that also was beginning to trouble his colleagues elsewhere in the country: what to do with contraband slaves? Ben Butler had faced up to this problem at Fortress Monroe in Virginia in late July 1861 and had been gotten vague and useless reassurances from Secretary of War Simon Cameron for his efforts.
But the problem was not going to go away. It was just that John C. Frémont was impulsive and forthright in dealing with it. And he would soon pay a high price for his daring. Try as the Lincoln administration might to ignore the implications of the Confiscation Act, the slaves, acting for their own reasons and on their own initiative, would help force them to see it. However, that time had no yet arrived–but it would.